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Rout of Darfur Rebels Not a Clear Victory for Sudan

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Sudan's government is touting its defeat of 1,000 outgunned Darfur rebels earlier this month as a major military defeat. But local Sudanese still have lingering questions on how the rebel forces got as far as they did.

N: The Darfur rebels were not "poorly equipped." This was an editing error. The sentence should read, "It was no surprise; the government troops outnumbered the rebels."]

GWEN THOMPKINS: Omdurman is the ancient city that shadows Khartoum over the Nile River. Today it's as dry as an old piece of toast. At the Kalifus(ph) Courtyard, camel-colored dust flies whenever the wind blows, and that's not often. It's hot. It's so hot that even the insides of oranges are steamy on your tongue. It's so hot that you can smell your own hair burning. It's so hot that somehow it feels okay to stand under an awning and ignore a photo display of young dead rebels in wells of their own blood.

And that should never be okay.

: (Through translator) Congratulations, Sudan. Congratulations the army for the victory.

THOMPKINS: That Mohammed Kosheb(ph). He lives in Omdorman and right now he and others are standing over a small crowd of men in the Kalifus Courtyard, extolling the government's victory over Darfur rebels two weeks ago. They're saying long live Sudan.

The men are all wearing white and holding walking sticks over their heads like wooden exclamation points.

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THOMPKINS: This is meant to be a celebration. Old men are twirling amid burned-out Land Rovers and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and color photos of the dead. In fact, the entire courtyard is set up like a country fair with booths and curiosities on display.

The scene represents the official version of the events of May 10, 2008, when the Justice and Equality Movement, perhaps the strongest fighting force among the many rebels groups of Darfur, attacked the city. They were on their way to take Khartoum.

Jhalil Ibrahim(ph), the medical doctor who heads the outfit, said he was after regime change, presumably to halt government-sponsored aggression against farming communities in Darfur. But the government struck back. Omar el Noor(ph) organized the exhibit.

THOMPKINS: (Through translator) It was a very big victory for us, all the forces. Even the students joined in. And for us to capture all these weapons and all these things and stop the destruction, it was very great for us to do that and become as one.

THOMPKINS: The battle was a rout. Among the more than 200 reported dead were mostly Jhalil Ibrahim's own fighters, including his second-in-command. But outside the Kalifus Courtyard, not everyone sees the fight as such a mythic victory for the government. After all, the government had home field advantage, more soldiers and more firepower.

What many in Khartoum really want to know is how did the rebels get so close. Safwad Fanoose(ph) teaches political science at Khartoum University.

THOMPKINS: The minister of defense had a TV interview to answer these questions. Now, his story was that we did not have resources to monitor these troops and stop them before they progressed any further.

THOMPKINS: The defense minister also alleged that the rebels had satellite help from a foreign sponsor, but his explanation apparently fell short.

THOMPKINS: There were many people even in the parliament who are not 100 percent convinced with this answer. Many people think that there was not good coordination between our forces, the security and the police force.

THOMPKINS: So, the rebels may have managed a kind of symbolic victory, showing that Sudan's military may not be as formidable as once believed. Minni Minawi is a former rebel leader who came out of the bush to work with the government and the international community to bring about peace in Darfur.

He calls Jhalil Ibrahim's tactics suicidal. Since the fight, more than 300 people have been arrested and many apparently tortured. But even Minawi can't help but note that the Justice and Equality Movement did what neither he nor any other rebel group could do.

THOMPKINS: I myself I was dreaming when I was outside to go to Khartoum.

THOMPKINS: No one can say whether Jhalil Ibrahim really expected to take over Sudan's government two weeks ago - he has since been hard to locate - nor can anyone say whether the battle inspired more sympathy for Darfur among the people of Khartoum. They are notoriously oblivious to an area so far from the capital.

But in the long term, many say, the battle in Omdurman could make Sudan's political leadership more serious about peace with Darfur. For the government it would be a matter of self-preservation. Now that one group of rebels knows the way to the presidential palace, there is no telling who will be coming next.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.

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